A faltering start for May's BRM

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I first saw the BRM (British Racing Motors), this most exciting racing car, in December 1949 at Bourne, Lincolnshire, when it was unveiled to the press and distinguished visitors and demonstrated by Raymond Mays, who had planned such a car for many years. Its first appearance was to be in August 1950 in the Daily Express International Trophy race at Silverstone, but the Trust, which was made up of over 350 firms and private individuals who backed the development either with cash or donated components, decided that it should be taken to the British (and European) Grand Prix meeting in May for a demonstration run, where the King and Queen would be in attendance.

During the run up to its first race, it experienced persistent engine trouble in testing at Folkingham which necessitated day and night work on the cars, and the mechanics worked many all-night stints. During testing the engine would misfire when opened up. When Raymond Sommer came over from France to drive the car for the first time, he realised that it had the makings of a “wonderful machine”. He had come over at his own expense and refused to charge a fee. Impressed with its power he stated, “I have driven machines which I could control, but this may be the car I am looking for – one that can master me!”

It had been arranged that Sommer and Peter Walker would share one car, and Reg Parnell and Mays would drive the other, but during testing on the eve of race day both cars cracked their number eight cylinder linings. Nevertheless, the race authorities and sponsors insisted that one car should race, so as not to let the public down.

The BRM was received with cheers by the spectators when it first appeared, The Daily Express, which was the race sponsor, chartered an aeroplane to collect the car from Cranwell, about 10 miles from Folkingham, and it flew over Silverstone and then on to Bicester aerodrome from where it was escorted by police cars and motor cycles, in an Austin van, which took the car to Silverstone, all by 10am. Mays did a warm-up lap, then Sommer took over and drove the three essential qualifying laps. The car sounded in very good order as he warmed it up. He then brought the car to the starting line ready for the International Trophy race, where it was on the back row. With growing excitement the flag fell, only for the car to jerk forward and stop. The BRM had to be pushed back to the paddock causing boos from some of the crowd and a few threw pennies into the cockpit – I expect they had joined the Trust when it was being developed. The car was reported as useless in some of the daily press and now the faith that the public had had in the car was almost evaporated.

Further development was necessary before it was effective. There was one event left in 1950 at Goodwood for which Parnell was signed up to drive, having tested the car at racing speeds at Folkingham. This time – success; Parnell had two wins, the first at 78.5mph and then at 82.48mph. Encouraged by the crowds two BRMs were then entered for the Barcelona Grand Prix at the end of October. Parnell and Walker were to drive, with Ken Richardson as reserve. But disaster struck again with Walker stalling on the startline and Parnell getting away very slowly. In one lap Parnell managed to overtake 17 cars, but that was too much for the BRM, as it broke its driveshaft. Walker also worked his way through the field to get into fifth place after 33 laps, but an oil leak forced him to retire.

It took another 10 years before BRM won a Grand Prix, but by then it was in the ownership of the Owen Racing Organisation.

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